Web 2.0 Means Business

May 2008
By Maryann Lawlor
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SRA International Incorporated’s Second Life presence includes a conference room that can be blocked off so employees may conduct private meetings.
Common interests bring professionals together online, then lead them to corporate collaboration.

Social networking and other Web 2.0 capabilities are creating new avenues for commerce by facilitating communication inside the corporate structure and extending collaboration beyond company walls. Key to making the most out of new technology, however, is determining corporate goals before throwing a new tool into the mix. When chosen and applied judiciously, nearly every Web 2.0 weapon—from del.icio.us to wikis—can play meaningful and profitable roles within any company.

According to Kate Walser, director, Usability Center of Excellence, SRA International Incorporated, Fairfax, Virginia, many corporations have been quick to want to adopt the new tools to promote knowledge sharing and collaboration within and beyond the organization. “The question that we asked is, ‘What are your goals? Who has the information in your organization? How do they work together now? How are they sharing that knowledge?’ That’s what you need to figure out first,” Walser says.

If, for example, an organization has a strict chain of command and only executives have certain information that they want to keep under tight control, the tool its leaders choose must have an authority- and approval-chain capability built in, she explains. “If that’s not the case, and you are trying to get the information out regardless of where it is in the ranks so you don’t need as much approval, you can start looking at social networking tools and really start to open it up a little bit more,” she adds.

The variety of tools now available to corporations for both knowledge sharing and collaboration is growing considerably because more of them are now easier to use. One example Walser cites is del.icio.us, a Web 2.0 capability that can be installed with a plug-in to a computer browser. It allows the user to bookmark and tag Web articles immediately with keywords that resonate specifically with the user or with the user’s coworkers and friends. As a result, rather than sending a link to an interesting article in e-mail, colleagues can access del.icio.us and can see the stories others have tagged. “It gets things out of e-mail—where people are so buried—and moves them to a tool where users can start to see the common interests of other people,” she explains. Common interests in one area—even if they are not work-related—open conversations that often lead to professional relationships, she adds.

SRA noticed this trend developing within its own corporate walls. Staff members already were using tools such as del.icio.us and social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, which enable them to stay connected both within and beyond the organization. As a result, the company decided to adopt similar capabilities to improve knowledge sharing within the organization.

This move is one indication that corporations are integrating these tools in ways that replace some of the more traditional means of communication, Walser says. “It used to be that you would find people who had common interests by going to conferences and just having discussions. You might be standing by the same poster or be in the same presentation. Now, while using some of the tools within SRA, I may see that a topic I’m interested in is one that someone else within the company is also working on, but I didn’t know it. Web 2.0 tools make it much easier for people to find each other,” Walser offers. “Now you don’t necessarily need to know the right people, you just need to be able to explore the social networks, explore the tagging.”

Walser says the benefits of companies using Web 2.0 capabilities are best understood by comparing how professionals researched topics just a few years ago to how it is done today. For instance, picture two people searching for the same term—say satellites—on the Web alone, she proposes. Before Web 2.0 tools were available, they would find their results and either move on or sift through them searching for other individuals who are working on satellites. With Web 2.0 tools, however, these same two individuals can now conduct a search on LinkedIn, Facebook, del.icio.us or another tool and find not only information about satellites but perhaps also each other as well as additional people interested in the topic. “Via LinkedIn and Facebook, they can also see who they know in common to see if this new contact is worth trusting or knowing. These tools are really a place we go now to see who’s who in the business world and see if our paths—or contacts—have crossed before,” she says.

Web 2.0 tools can also help break down geographic, temporal and physical barriers, facilitating collaboration. For example, SRA has a presence in Second Life, one of the most mature and well-known virtual worlds, and has found people who either specifically look for the company there or have stumbled upon it “in-world.” In addition, Walser relates that the Second Life island dedicated to accessibility for people with disabilities enables her to meet new colleagues with similar interests. “Now we have a whole new network of people that we didn’t know before. They are nowhere close to us in the United States, but it doesn’t matter. You start to transcend geography,” she points out.

The anonymity that Web 2.0 technologies provide also is encouraging collaboration in a way never before possible. At the bare minimum, social networking and other capabilities can persuade professionals who shy away from speaking up in large groups to take part in online discussions. “There’s a little bit of safety about being behind a computer screen,” she notes.

The online environment also can boost collaboration for people with disabilities who may be uncomfortable meeting face-to-face with peers, Walser proposes. Conversely, professionals who find it challenging to look beyond a colleague’s physical disabilities can use social networking and the collaborative environment Web 2.0 tools provide to work together in a more productive manner, she says.

Social networking tools also are becoming the building blocks of trusted professional relationships. Technologies such as LinkedIn show the relationship between someone who sends an invitation to join the network and others within the network. The 21st century’s version of formal professional introductions, this tool instigates at least a small degree of trust simply because of mutual friendships or professional relationships.

“I see Web 2.0 fostering more collaboration within industry, beyond company borders. Just as it’s letting us discover colleagues with similar interests within our organizations and in our personal lives, we are experiencing a surge of interest-matching occurring on social media tools. As an example, I have my profile on LinkedIn. I’ve found a couple groups with members of industry who share common interests such as wireless computing and more Web 2.0 usability. I also receive invitations from people I don’t know with these shared interests. I may not even accept their invitation to link networks, but I do extend an invitation to catch up and learn from each other. I still want to know the person and establish some trust before inviting them to see who I know and have access to that network,” Walser says.

In virtual worlds such as Second Life, geographic and even gravity barriers do not exist, eliminating the limitations of the real world. According to experts, for some, speaking up during collaborative discussions is easier as an avatar because the computer screen offers perceived safety.
“A former colleague thought those of us using LinkedIn were crazy in linking to others and sharing our networks. ‘A bit like opening up the Rolodex to anyone’ were his words. That was about a year ago. I notice he’s now on LinkedIn and trying to catch up after realizing that these tools are how people are now doing business and maintaining networks of old and new colleagues and contacts,” she adds.

For all the benefits that Web 2.0 tools offer industry, the capabilities also pose challenges to traditional corporate structure. Walser notes that because people are accustomed to using the tools at home, the line between personal and professional usage blurs. While organizations should want to provide their employees with an open environment that promotes collaboration, they must recognize the responsibility to ensure that the technology is being used appropriately and professionalism is   maintained.

Walser offers the language of instant messaging as one example. While sending instant messages to friends, many people use shortcuts and informal language. However, when instant messaging is being used within an organization, corporate leaders must take reasonable steps to ensure that people continue to treat each other with professional respect, she explains.

These issues are particularly salient when managing young professionals who have grown up in a world where Facebook and MySpace are their primary way to share information. “It’s very important for recent college graduates to realize that this is something that is open to the world and it represents you. It’s not just your friends. It’s potential employers, and potential customers are especially looking at it, too. We [SRA] are looking at it from that perspective as well, and we are using that when we’re looking at potential employee candidates. We’re looking at potential relationships. We have those tools now. LinkedIn is a particularly popular among business people that we can take a look at to see who knows who and who we have in common and then can work together from that perspective,” Walser says.

And while sharing information is at the root of most social networking tools, she notes it must be done in the corporate realm with a degree of caution. When responding to questions from outside the company, employees must not, in an effort to be helpful, rush and give away intellectual property to competitors.

The Web 2.0 balancing act for corporations must extend even further than their employees maintaining a professional presence on the Web and ensuring mutual respect among its personnel. Although these tools are ideal for promoting collaboration in many ways, Walser warns that companies must make sure that they offer opportunities for real-life interaction among their employees. This helps nurture the e-collaboration that takes place online, she maintains.

Similar to the level of the Web 2.0 tool integration taking place within the U.S. military and government, the extent of usage in the corporate sector varies and depends on a number of factors. Walser believes SRA, for example, is more open to using these capabilities both externally and internally because of the work it has conducted in this area for many of its customers. The company has seen what does and does not work in corporate Web 2.0, she maintains.

The company is also fortunate to have forward-thinking leaders and a chief knowledge officer who has experience working with customers, Walser shares, which led to bringing some Web 2.0-type tools inside the company. “Instead of opening up the possibility of people going outside and sharing sensitive information, we can really make sure that it’s inside the company and done right,” she says. For example, through its intranet portal, SRA has set up a LinkedIn equivalent and a “My Sites,” so personnel can track interests of fellow employees.

Although Web 2.0 tools offer a plethora of new ways to stay connected via the online world, Walser believes the need for traditional professional conferences is still strong. They are becoming the meeting place for thousands of professionals who have met only online, she says, and events that center on a common interest are the opportunity to meet face-to-face. Social networking capabilities may facilitate initial introductions and bring together people with common interests together, but humans are still a social species. “People still want that personal contact. They may find some of these people on the Web 2.0 tools, but still at the end of the day they want to have somebody they can go to lunch or have coffee with,” she says.

Web Resources
SRA International Incorporated: www.sra.com
Second Life: www.secondlife.com
Del.icio.us: http://del.icio.us
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com


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